#1 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
This is the perfect encapsulation of what made Billy Wilder great. It contains his thematic focuses, some of the best performances he ever got from actors, the most effective and beautiful black and white photography, and the best combination of comedy and drama. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s dramatic elements are so strong that it ends up connecting emotionally in ways that some of Wilder’s more overtly comedic films don’t. It’s a triumph, and Wilder’s best movie.
C.C. Baxter is a worker bee at a giant insurance company in New York. He often works late because he’s gotten himself into a situation where he has to give his apartment up to four executives who use his place for trysts with women away from their wives. He’s eager for advancement in the company, so he, as cheerfully as can be expected when he has to spend most of a night outside in the cold, accepts the situation and waits eagerly for his erstwhile promised promotion. The whole scheme gets found out by Mr. Sheldrake, the head of personnel at the company, who decides to use the apartment as well.
At the same time, Baxter, feeling confident because of his upcoming promotion, manages to befriend the attractive young elevator operator, Fran, but the irony is that Mr. Sheldrake wants to use Baxter’s apartment in order to try and rekindle his relationship with Fran that had broken off some months before. That’s the situation that gets revealed steadily to the two as they dance around their mutual affection and attraction. Baxter is trapped by his need to appeal to his higher up in order to advance his career, and Fran is trapped by her desire for a married man.
They both sacrifice their humanity to a certain extent in order to fit into this system. It’s almost Kubrickian in theme.
There’s a lot that makes this movie work as well as it does, but it’s really the intelligence of the characters at the center of it that drives it. Both Baxter and Fran have complete self-awareness of where they are, what they are doing, and how those actions are divergent from their ideas of who they are. Baxter doesn’t think he’d give up his morals to advance his career, but he’s doing it. Fran doesn’t think she would fall for a married man who never leaves his wife, but she’s doing it. Trapped in these two situations, Baxter and Fran know that they are perfect for each other, but they’re willing to give that up for the thing that they think they want, rather than what they really want.
When both fully get what they think they want, it’s late in the film and they’re both miserable. Baxter gets promoted to Mr. Sheldrake’s assistant while Mr. Sheldrake gets kicked out of the house by his wife who discovered his affairs, allowing Mr. Sheldrake to fully commit to Fran. And yet, given what they’ve always wanted, there’s still an emptiness to them that they know exactly how to fill.
When Mr. Sheldrake asks for the key to Baxter’s apartment one more time to save himself some cash for a hotel and shack up with Fran, Baxter throws away his professional life and walks out. He won’t tolerate the selling of his soul anymore. Fran, discovering that Baxter turned his back on Mr. Sheldrake finds it within herself to do the same, running to the titular apartment and sitting down next to Baxter to finish a game of gin rummy.
The cynicism so prevalent in Wilder’s earlier films is represented in the movie’s early acceptance of infidelity as well as Mr. Sheldrake’s outlook on the world, but it’s counterbalanced by the clear-eyed optimism that Baxter and Fran share when they’re together. They’re the perfect couple who have to choose to be together. Their path is clear, focused, and fraught with challenges that they overcome with character growth.
Visually, the movie is wonderful. From the wide open space of the working floor in the Insurance company that seems to stretch to infinity to the simple and evocative compositions (my favorite being when Mr. Sheldrake walks into Baxter’s office, towering over the four executives and the sitting Baxter, overpowering everyone else in the frame), Wilder and his director of photography Joseph LaShelle create a beautiful black and white tapestry to build their story. Wilder was highly preferential towards black and white photography in general, and he knows how to use it.
Everything about this movie seems to represent every narrative and filmmaking lesson Wilder ever learned in one perfect package. I adore this film.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4